Posts Tagged ‘men’
My New Year’s resolution, not this year, but the year before, was to give up bad sex. I broke it with a spectacularly awful shag before January was even out. It was gross, but hard to regret, as there’s nothing like reminding yourself what bad sex is like to put you off signing up for it. It was nearly a year before I found myself wanting—really wanting rather than idly fantasising—to sleep with someone else again.
I have taken a lover.* This is the point where I’m meant to tell you he’s tall and domly and swept me off my feet, isn’t it? Sorry to disappoint. We met when I was being shy at a fetish club, where his conversation saved me from having to face crowds of strangers. When he said I ought to mingle I sulked and pouted. I suspect the sulking is where it all began. We stayed in touch, talked about play. Months later he failed, for the hundredth time, to deliver a promised spanking, so I had a tantrum. Is this the stuff romance is made of?
I told my friends about him. “What’s he like?” They asked.
“He has long hair. And he’s married; his wife has a girlfriend.”
“It sounds like a powder keg about to go off.” I was told. I don’t know what’s so dangerous about a ponytail.
Getting into bed with a married man is a bit of a minefield. When is the right point to say, “Would your wife be ok with this?” after the first kiss but before the knickers come off? Do you take his word for it, or call her to check? When you send her husband home late, should you pin an apologetic note onto his coat? Is, “might your wife me expecting sex soon? I wouldn’t want to wear you out,” too personal a question?
I suspect that things are easier if you’re in a Meaningful Relationship. Then you can identify as poly, buy books about doing screwing around ethically and drink coffee, once a month, with the kinksters and hippies who form reassuring and supportive groups. My lover is poly, so’s his wife and so’s her girlfriend. Me, I’m just having sex. And enjoying my lover’s wife’s baking.
If you’re in a Meaningful Relationship, you can demand acceptance from your partner’s (or partners’) partner(s). Since we’re not serious, I hang on the edge; the lover considers me pleasantly shaped and agreeably kinky, that doesn’t imply that his wife has any desire to spend time with me at all, and her girlfriend probably has even less. Alternatively, I can sit alone with the lover wondering whether the others are resentful at my luring him away.
The complications of romance in the poly, kinky world are nothing, though, to the complications of the vanilla, monogamous one. After my adventures in normality the last few weeks, I don’t know how the majority of the population do it.
A few weeks ago, as I waited for my turn at a dance class, a woman approached me and asked, “Are you single? One of my friends might be interested.”
What could I say? The full answer was, “yes, I am single. Happily single, not looking, and in the interests of full disclosure I should tell you that I have a lover. And a play partner. Oh, yes, and I’m only interested in kinksters, really. Who’s this friend?” That seemed rather too revealing an answer, with eleven women other women listening in. So I went with, “it’s complicated.”
I should have asked who the friend was, but instead I spent the next few weeks trying to puzzle it out. I narrowed the contenders down to two. At first I thought it was the one who’d paid me more attention that night. Then his interest seemed to wane, and his friend paid me more attention. Every time I thought I had a clue—that one had called me “gorgeous”, say, or monopolised my time for an evening—the other would soon do the same thing, and I’d be back to square one. I’d thought the woman who asked me if I was single was involved with one of them. It didn’t look like it some nights, though, and in any case, who am I to make assumptions about the rules of other people’s relationships?
Finally, one of them made his move. He chose a bad night to do it. I’d met the lover at lunchtime, emerged from bed bruised and sore in the early evening, and rushed to dancing. After half an hour, during which I ignored increasingly explicit signals, he declared his attraction and demanded an answer. I refused to give one. He pestered, and pestered, until eventually I snapped and said, “I spent about four hours** today having sex, I just can’t think about it any more!” The look on his face was something to see.
The next week I intended to set things straight and tell him that the answer was no thank you, for now. He was playing it cool, though, and the narrative tension was lost in the face of his indifference. I tried to regain it with reference to previous plot points, “So I assume it was you who sent that lass over to say you fancied me?” I said.
“What lass?” he asked, face full of consternation. I let it drop. By the next week, though, I was determined to give him my answer. I would have to subtly indicate that I wasn’t the nice girl he thought I was. I had my line planned:
“You don’t really know me. If you did, you would probably think very differently about whether you want to get involved.” As I said it, I realised how much I sounded like a sweet, nice girl who wants to get to know a man before she holds hands. It lacked the sense of doom and foreboding I was aiming at. So I found myself agreeing to get to know him, when what I really wanted to say was, “I’m not the girl you think I am. You don’t want me.”
Several text messages later and he’s asked for a lift, offered a lift, offered a meal out and said he wants my email address. All have been refused. That’s when he calls me for the first time and tells me he’s horny. Tells me I’m hot. As I’m explaining that I already have a lover, that I’m not looking for anything else right now, he tells me he’s touching himself. What’s the polite response to that? I repeat that I’m disinclined to get involved with him. He tells me he’s going to come. I wish him a good afternoon, thank him for calling, and say goodbye.
I give you Exhibit One: The Wanking Man. If this is how people behave in vanilla circles, lock me in a dungeon with the perverts. They normally ask permission before the grunting starts.
The Wanking Man’s claim that he worked alone made Exhibit Two the leading suspect for sending the woman over to ask if I was single, even if he had a physical intimacy with her unusual between friends. Since I’ve been known to participate in group snuggles, I’m hardly one to judge. In any case, time slid by, he didn’t made a move, and I concluded that the moment had passed, and we’d settled into being regular dance partners. I accepted an invitation to his house to practise. I was lucky girl, I thought, to have such an attentive man to teach me.
Have I managed to create an atmosphere of doom and foreboding this time?
I arrive at his house and hand over my home-made biscotti, which is received with a disappointing lack of fanfare. We go through some routines, then do some closer moves, and watch demonstrations, standing with his arm around my waist and my hand draped over his shoulder. Eventually, we kiss. I decide to open the conversation about not wanting this to go too far, before he breaks out the condoms. So over dinner, a quorny concoction he’d made after divining my vegetarianism, I said, “I assumed you were involved with that woman, wossname…?”
“Oh, I am.” He says. Hmm.
We have The Conversation. I tell him about my married lover, play partner, and preference for kinksters. He tells me about his girlfriend, love of outdoor sex, dogging, and irrepressible infidelities. Then there’s spanking and cuddles. What’s not to like? Well, quite a lot, if you’re his girlfriend. Are smacks and snuggles over the line?
And so I give you Exhibit Two: The Cheating Man. Respectable on the outside, a bubbling pit of illicit desire and quorn-based seduction underneath.
Monogamous vanilla men are weird. Give me a straightforward poly pervert any day. At least when I call the lover and ask if he’s free to fuck on Friday, he says he’ll check with his wife. Then tells me, in detail, precisely how much he’s going to he’s going to hurt me. I’ll take good honest complexity over secrets and lies any day of the week.
*This is a contested word. We’ve gone through friend, play partner, shag, another half, fraction, decimal point and in an awful slip of the tongue yesterday I used the word girlfriend. There’s always some slippage, and if you were loving readers you’d have a whip round for a good thesaurus for me.
**It is possible I exaggerated by 30 minutes or so. I was rounding up.
Last night, during the interval in a play about queerness, a friend admitted that he’d popped his head around the door of one of the modern jive venues I go to. He didn’t spot me twirling gracefully across the dance floor and spend the rest of the evening staring and entranced. He retreated, he told me, because the place had all the awfulness of a school disco. His school discos clearly differed from mine, which involved metal, grunge and a lot of painful moshing.
I was filled with shame. I don’t know what his discos were like, but his tone left no doubt as to what he thought of them. Modern jive isn’t cool. I attended my first class because I’d moved back to my father’s house in the centre of middle-class, middle-age, dormitory-village nowhere, and when he asked me if I wanted to come, I thought it may be marginally better than sitting at home alone for another night. I discovered I liked it, and realised, as an ex-boyfriend had pointed out months before, that there’s no one following me around with video cameras judging my behaviour.
At dancing, it’s the activity I enjoy. I know that many of the people there are hopeless, the music is often dismal even from my tasteless perspective, I halve the average age* and proper dancers look down on easy modern jive. None of that changes the fact that I leave sweaty and slightly high, reliving the best moments of the best dances. It also provides a good excuse to buy pretty dresses, a high priority for me.
Reflecting on this last night (read: lying awake mentally justifying my uncool choices) it struck me that I have the same feelings of shame and embarrassment about my sexual and play partners as I do about my choice of dance venues. I know what sort of thing I’m meant to like: lithe young men with long eyelashes and big muscles, or slim young women with good cheekbones and shiny hair. But I don’t. Well, sometimes I do, but not usually for those qualities. I don’t feel good about that.
Some criticisms stick with you. The time my best friend said she knew I thought my girlfriend was beautiful, but she didn’t. The disgust when people find out just how much older than me a new lover is. I shrug and say, “does age matter?” or, “it’s not serious,” trying to play down the issue. It does matter to me, though: I like older men. If I’ll admit my kink for being hit with a rattan cane, why is it so much more difficult to say, “middle aged men turn me on,” or even (and this was difficult to type, I admit) “slightly grotesque men do it for me”?
I’m perfectly able to describe the kink scene without alluding to its lack of glamour. My vanilla friends don’t need to know about the tacky PVC or public sex**. They’re unlikely to turn up at a fetish club, leave in disgust and later berate me for giving the impression that kink was all about reading interesting Victorian journals and wearing pretty shoes. They’re much more likely to make judgements about people. So I don’t mention that a play partner is twice my age, although I find the fact delicious, or bring up my intermittent frissons of attraction to an overweight man with a tendency to sweat.
Clearly, I ought to embrace my lack of cool, as I have been doing in any number of areas (fashion, say, or poetry) for years, and proudly go to my dorky dance venues and seek play from people with whom I’ll enjoy it most. There’s a part of me which will mourn the fantasy of myself as the alluring, transgressive kinkster, expressive of others’ secret, dark desires, but I hope for other rewards. Now, and with those in mind, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see how my new white cotton panties look with my gingham dress. It’s an outfit I hope to have a lot of very uncool fun while wearing.
*This is an exaggeration. I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact that I’m twenty-six.
**I’ve only ever seen this in one club, but it was the day of my first toe-dip into the fetish scene, and it stuck in my mind.
I think it was the all-girls schooling. Or maybe my father didn’t read me enough adventure stories at bedtime when I was child. Whatever the reason, I simply can’t make male friends. I think I may give up and become a lesbian separatist or a nun.
It usually goes like this: I’ll meet a man who knows something interesting, or tells amusing stories, or is simply there when I’m alone, clutching a wineglass and canapé hoping, desperately, for someone who doesn’t mind me hanging around. We’ll have a good enough time to make it worth exchanging contact details. We’ll meet again and at the end of one of these meetings, I’ll leave thinking, “It was all in my mind. Of course I can make male friends, it’s easy, look how comfortable we are together!” Little do I know that as I’m thinking this, he’s staring fixedly at my receding backside.
If there’s a feeling of disappointment when, on some future date, I check that I haven’t spilled something on my top and realise that there are only two things he could be staring at, there’s also a sense of hope. Any number of people might like me on spec, but to still find me attractive once you know about the unshaven legs and the Ke$ha albums seems unlikely, if not veritably perverse. So when sex or spanking is suggested* I tend to think, “well, at least he’s heard about the schoolgirl outfits, so he won’t run, screaming, freaked out by the kinkery.”
I have fun—what would be the point if I didn’t?—and feel a few smug moments of pity for others who have to put up with blokes there every night making the bed stinky in order to get what I can have for a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon, if it suits. Then, inevitably, one of two awful things happens: Either he declares his undying love, or he declares that I’ll never be worthy of such adulation. The former generally terminates the friendship. The latter just makes a big mess.
After all, it’s one thing to know that someone thinks you’re fun, worth talking to on the phone and going out of the way to visit. It’s entirely another to be told that you’re good enough to do that with, but not of the necessary material for anything more. That’s perfectly horrid! Suddenly I’m second best (or third best, or fourth, I hate to think! I’ve managed to prevent anyone communicating my official ranking to date). The good times together are sucked dry, it instantly becomes clear that while I was enjoying my friend’s company, he was killing time until someone better showed up. That isn’t a nice thought, even if it’s exactly what I was doing with him.
Fortunately, I seem to be perfecting the process with practice, and it’s definitely speeding up. A couple of years ago it took months for a male friend to work up to a declaration of love. I’ve had two communications of intention not to from men in one season, and neither of them took more than a week. This saves a lot of time and energy, but doesn’t exactly solve the problem.
I feel like I’m playing cowboys and Indians, complete with feather headdress and slightly-too-short Princess Tiger Lily dress, when suddenly everyone puts down their toy guns to tell me whether they’re really intending to go to war. While I’m still tied up. I’m usually enjoying our game, but it feels childish to bring that up while everyone is talking about grown up things.
Can you help? I need to discover the following things:
1. How does one distinguish men who fancy you politely from men who don’t fancy you at all? Is there some sort of handshake?
2. What are rules regulating intersexual friendship? Are there taboo topics for the chaste? (I ask this after realising I discussed my knickers which two men last week. I asked the second if it was inappropriate, but he assured me it was a perfectly acceptable topic).
3. How does one assure a man that he doesn’t need to assure you that he’s not getting overly attached, without inadvertently perpetuating the cycle of insult or slipping down the slope towards in infinite regress of reassurance?
Failing that, does anyone know of a nunnery with spaces for irreligious types?
*Or sex and spanking. According to vanilla custom, sex is suggested, and spanking may be tentatively put forward as a possibility after that proposal is accepted. In the kinky world, it’s the other way around, because we know that sex is the really weird, gross, thing.
I just threatened a man with violence, then bought Christmas cards. Well, Season’s Greetings cards, actually, because they’re for the Amnesty Card Campaign and I don’t want to offend non-Christians. I don’t want to offend anyone, me.
Except this man in a tracksuit on Portland Street in Manchester. I want to do a lot more than offend him. I want to punch him in the face and kick him until he cries. I don’t even know his name and I hate him. I’m a more violent person than I knew.
I got up this morning, looked out of the window and wondered if I could bring myself to leave the house. It is one of those days that looks inviting but numbs your fingers and scorches your throat when you go out. I decided to run a couple of errands on the bike and call it exercise. Knowing I would have to put everything in the wash when I got home I put on a pair of lycra trousers which have been chewed at one cuff by my bicycle and a jumper with at least two holes in it. I thought about tidying my hair, but it was only going to be crushed under my helmet. I looked decidedly scratty, but who cares? I was returning library books, and retrieving lost property, not going on the pull.
I got to the cafe where I abandoned possessions yesterday, locked my bike up and the pushed on the doors. It was closed. I harrumphed quietly in frustration and went back to my bike, listening to Linkin Park (yes, Linkin Park, I never pretended to have a sophisticated taste in music) being loud and angry through my earphones. I bent over my bike to coax the lock open. After a few seconds I felt something press—no, poke—against my buttocks. I straightened up, right into the body of a man standing immediately behind me. I jumped, I even made a little, involuntary noise of surprise. Stepping away from the man, I said, at a volume I couldn’t judge because my earphones were in, “what are you doing?” I couldn’t hear his reply over Linkin Park. I jerked them out of my ears and said, “What?”
“Oh, yeah, I was just going to ask you the time.” The man grinned.
I held up my bare wrist, “Sorry, I don’t wear a watch.” I had a few seconds to reflect on the fact that I had just apologised to the stranger who, I realised with gross clarity, had just been jabbing me with his erect penis, before he grabbed my arm and said,
“The thing is, yeah, my mate’s over there,” he gestured vaguely up the empty street, “and I was going to get behind you and do this, right?” He spread his arms and legs wide and thrust his hips forward in an obscene motion, then he laughed.
“Next time,” I said, “I’ll kick you in the balls.”
“Yeah,” he said, “do that!”
I wheeled my bike around and started to walk away. He grabbed my arm again. I wrenched free. “Don’t touch me,” I said, and again, louder and shriller as I reached the curb, “don’t touch me!”
I cycled aggressively, dangerously, and then shot people dirty looks as I browsed for Christmas cards. I turned the volume up loud and listened to Nickelback on the way home. It didn’t help. I feel dirty, angry, and ever so slightly ashamed. I’ve been a professional peace worker. People have spent real money on my mediation training. I’m a fair way to being a pacifist. All that, and after one touch I’m threatening violence. He wanted a reaction and he got it, which makes me angrier still.
Once a fortnight I resist throwing things at Martin Amis. Usually books, but it depends what else is to hand. I haven’t had the guts to knit during sessions with him, but if I did, I’d launch my needles like javelins. Amis isn’t evil—he hasn’t killed people or spoken at the theatre—he just has a habit of making smug pronouncements that force me to sit on my hands for fear of doing something violent.
Today he announced the end of class and gender discrimination. The only oppressive system left, apparently, focuses on age, so we should concern ourselves with the old. Martin Amis is white, male, and not getting any younger. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see why his concern lies where it does.
We made some points about education, I pointed out that class affects identity, and pulled some faces. What I didn’t do was rant and gesticulate, talk about the disproportionate number of women living in poverty, weep over the woman jailed because her abuser pressured her into retracting her rape claim, or demand to know why he hadn’t set a single novel by a female author. It wouldn’t have felt appropriate. He’s eminent, after all. Most of the eminent people are old, white men.
I’ve never taken the toffee-hammer approach to feminism. Generally, I think we’re like to get further if we don’t give everyone a reason to write us off as hysterical madwomen. So I wait my turn and voice my disagreements, if invited, politely. Even if I haven’t bothered to shave my legs, I’ve put on a skirt, hold-ups and some new Chanel foundation that I really couldn’t afford. I’m a nice, middle-class girl, after all.
Sometimes I imagine a life in which I wasn’t polite. I replay the moment when Martin Amis said that women should stop sleeping with gloomy novelists, because it only encourages them, and visualise myself saying what every woman in the room must have been thinking: that he didn’t have a chance with us, and sex with women isn’t some sort of rewards system for writers, in fact, some of them are women. I’d go back and tell all the guys who talk about their aggressive driving that they are dicks, and strip off in front of men who harass me on the street. Every time a man made a sexist comment while pretending to seek understanding of women or feminism I would slap his face and walk away.
I know that this isn’t how you build understanding or change minds. I realise that people are more likely to forget what you told them than how you made them feel. I have ideals and mediation training and Martin Amis’s autobiography. None of that changes this: I want to throw things at Martin Amis. If I’m arrested for assault, will the feminists bail me out?
Most of my life, I’m sorry to say, isn’t about sex. Most of my popular blog posts are. If my life was filled with gorgeous men and women willing to provide imaginative, no-strings sex things might be different, but in reality it is populated by unattractive, unavailable people, a few mirages and the odd gem. That’s why I get annoyed when modern jive teachers try to spice up the moves or fill their lessons with innuendo. They invariably tell their dirtiest joke just as a press my fingers into the hand of a mild-mannered married man older than my father, and causing us both to embarrassedly stare at the floor until the music starts.
A hint of sex, if you play it right, is rather nice. Most people don’t play it right. If you use your most lascivious tones to compliment me on my hair and describe the pleasurable sensation of it on your skin as I spin past, saying “you remind me of my daughter,” during the same track is going to make me feel uncomfortable. In fact, anything which you can’t laugh off is probably a little dangerous. I might avoid dancing with you again if I think you’ve been overcome by uncontrollable lust. Worse, I may return your affection and seek you out at every event, dancing inappropriately close and angering your wife. All in all, it’s safer not to indulge.
Last Friday, someone reminded me why I remain an incorrigible flirt. I’ll tell you about him
Since the first time we met he has been called, in my mind, “The Fantastic Flirt”. I asked him to dance entirely on the basis of his height, because, being 5’ 10’’, I spend far too much time ducking as I turn. Not only was my man tall, he was also, I discovered, an excellent leader. We went through the usual moves, and a less usual one as, from behind, he guided my hips from side to side. I got it wrong the first time, and lost the beat the second. “You’re a natural,” he said. “I’m off the beat,” I replied. “I don’t care!” he told me.
A few days later I approached him at a freestyle and asked him to dance. He politely accepted and led me to the floor. A few bars in he said “Ah, I remember you. You’re the one with the hips!”*
There’s a fine line between flirting and sleaziness, and I honestly can’t tell you how to stay on the right side of it. I get a lot of odd compliments. “You’re like a butterfly”, for example (was that a reference to my hairy body?); “you must have a wardrobe full of nice dresses,” (not full, there’s room for lumpy jumpers and old shoes); and my favourite “you’ve got solid hips and first class movement.” (Um, thanks). Vocal appreciation of someone’s moves isn’t always good. The Fantastic Flirt always gets it right, though. Not that he has much finesse. He’s been known to make little moaning sounds when I get close and wiggle. He usually mentions that I’m good at that. He’s used the same canned compliment about how happy he is to dance with me three times to date. Always seems a step further along the path of dancing close, he introduces a move in which I have to touch his chest, or be pressed against his body, causing me to pull away in surprise before daring to follow his lead. Last week he managed to make me blush. And, yes, insinuating that I may have had a previous job as a lap dancer was probably taking it too far, but I think I can forgive him.
I like the feeling of his hand on my back as he guides me to the floor. His big hands make me feel delicate. I like the gentle way he leads me, relying on my desire to follow. I like his choice of moves, guiding me by his fingertips on my shoulders, my wrist. I like the praise, which feels like enthusiastic applause. I even like his teasing.
Why does the Fantastic Flirt always leave me with a bolstered ego and a rosy glow, while lesser lechers on the dance floor make me want to scrub off their fingerprints? Is it because I know that he’s taken? Or because he seems so in control, always ready with his next quip or complex move? A man overcome by desire can hardly have brain space for musicality. The whole thing is a game we play, another sort of dance, leading nowhere. It feels safe.
That said, there are few people worse at reading these situations than me.
Whatever it is, I’m enjoying it. I wanted to share. The romance of a dance may be documented to the point of cliché in an hundred romance novels, but the empty flirtation with the man who is not, and never will be, a part of your life, is always overlooked. I know you shouldn’t put a gun on the wall in act one if you’re not going to fire it in act two, but sometimes that means you miss out on the little things. The tension in a man’s muscles beneath your hand, the intake of breath as you spin, and all the other meaningless details.
*I wasn’t insulted about being forgotten. In fact, after several weeks of dancing with him, I realised that I’d conflated him with another person. It wasn’t until they both turned up for the same class that I noticed they were two separate individuals.
“There’s always one creep,” a man said to me last week, before twirling me around and semi-ironically staring at my breasts, “at least one.” I have to say that I like this man. He’s one of my regular dance partners, a proper Yorkshire man, quiet to the point of gruffness, who teases me over the inordinate quantity of hair with which I occasionally hit men in the face (entirely by accident) as I twirl. I’ve brought him cake and he’s offered to have a whip-round so I can pay for a proper haircut. We get on, but he doesn’t understand about the creeps.
I’ve just about had it with the creeps. I used to have better tolerance levels. I used to be able to think it was a laugh, that it was an odd sort of compliment to receive someone’s attention. If I’m entirely honest, I’ve sometimes been a little disappointed not to have been the object of more creepiness. There are so many books about young, beautiful things catching the eyes of teachers and uncles, throwing them into paroxysms and crises which I would have been flattered to cause.
I didn’t have the sun-kissed body, slender legs and shiny hair of the charming teenager of those novels. I didn’t even have a white tennis skirt. Instead I had a cloud of frizzy hair and the pale complexion that comes of spending too much time in the library with a dusty volume of Tennyson. So when I did meet my first creepy man, he wasn’t of the vintage car and picnic hamper variety, he was a hairy homunculus with an overworked wife and a study full of poetry books. We read each other’s poems, he talked about Ruskin, I flirted outrageously and one day at his daughter’s sleepover he put my hand on his penis. Suddenly it wasn’t fun anymore.
I didn’t tell anyone and I did my best to avoid him. It took me years to work out that it wasn’t my fault.
That’s the problem with creepy men. You’re never sure whether you’re imagining the creepiness. Afterwards, instead of feeling angry, you feel guilty, and keep it to yourself. You think that to be getting that sort of attention you must be doing something wrong.
Now I wonder, if I had told someone, what would have happened. Would he have been dragged off to prison for molesting underage girls, or would someone have had a quiet word with me about being more careful in future?
I was rather blasé about the creeps after that. Nothing that bad was going to happen, I thought. To my credit, I was right. I managed to wriggle out of the grasp of every creep. Even when my boss pressed several glasses of rice wine on me and sent me home in a taxi alone with a colleague who’d been trying to get into my pants all evening. It somehow culminated in him declaring I was like a daughter to him and putting me on the phone to his very confused wife. All part of a colourful experience, I thought as I plotted a route off-campus which wouldn’t take me past his office.
I don’t know why I attract the creeps. I don’t know why, the last time I was in London, I was asked out by three men between the tube station and my friend’s house, or why, the time before, someone followed me to her door. I don’t know why it’s me who men choose to feel up when we’re dancing, or why they think that I will be receptive to their advances as they offer a phone number or a walk home. Are you thinking that these things happen to all women, not just to me? I know that they happen to me significantly more than they do to my friends, I don’t know how often they happen to you. More importantly to me, I honestly don’t know why they happen. I’ve been through so many reasons. Am I too friendly, too smiley, too open, too likely to flirt, too sluttily dressed? I’ve tried changing my behaviour in all sorts of ways, but it keeps on coming. I begin to think that blaming myself is like feeling guilty for having conversations about poetry when I was fourteen. It’s wasn’t my action, it was his.
In the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to find a polite way to tell a man twice my age that I’m really not interested. I’ve been hiding behind pillars to avoid a man at dancing who stares at me. I don’t know if he still does it, as I’m scared of encouraging him by looking his way. Last night a man put my hand on his penis again, this time over his trousers. When you’re in the middle of a crowded room, snatching your hand away from someone’s crotch, you do begin to ask what’s going on.
I still don’t think anything terrible is going to happen. Dance halls are not good venues for assault, sexual or otherwise. Overfriendly middle aged men are more lonely than violent. All the same, I can’t tell you how much I wish they would stop.
I’ve tried telling people about the staring man. I’m told that he’s reacting to my nice dress, that he thinks I’m attractive. It’s been implied that I’m paranoid. It’s difficult, apparently, watching women dance. There’s always one creep, it’s no big deal. Some men find it difficult to interact with women, we should make ourselves clear. The men don’t take it seriously; I wonder if they have considered who they are aligning themselves with?
At midnight last night I scanned the room to see if anyone was available for the last dance. An overweight man lumbered towards me, and I thought “if he waddles, rather than walks, how is he going to dance?” Nevertheless, I politely accepted his invitation, on the basis that good manners cost me only the length of a single track. I submitted to being pressed into his sweaty side and having my hips and waist pawed for a couple of minutes, then escaped his clutches. A couple of minutes later he appeared beside me and leered, “are you here alone?” At the same moment I realised I’d lost my keys. I was stranded twenty miles from my locked house, in the middle of the night, with a creepy man who wouldn’t leave me be. I tried to shake him by walking to the car park and back, but he waited. I repeatedly told him I’d be fine, but he lurked, and as the crowd cleared I realised I would soon be alone with him. I thought I’d managed to lose him, but he pulled up in a car and told me to get in. I was rescued by a woman half my height and weight, who told him, in no uncertain terms, where to go.*
She made me very, very happy.
I’ve had enough of creepy men. You should have, too. On a bad day I feel as if I’m living my life under siege. I think if a single one of the men I’ve mentioned it to understood that, they wouldn’t make excuses for the starers, the pinchers, the feelers and the lurkers. They wouldn’t want to think of themselves as in the same category. They don’t have to do anything inappropriately manly, there’s no need for a confrontation, but, men, I could do with a hand. If you see me struggling to get away from another creep, because there’s always going to be another one, you could make your presence known. Perhaps you could even whisk me off for a nice, chaste dance. I can’t tell you how much I would appreciate it.
*It isn’t relevant to creepy men, but you might like to know that my rescuer and her friend, both good friends of my father, calmed me down, drove me home, offered to climb up ladders and through windows, but didn’t have to because I had neglected to lock the back door. United with my spare set of car keys, I was driven back to my car and not left alone until they’d checked I was happy, safe and sufficiently fuelled. Some people are just amazing.
I’ve been having violent fantasies for two days. Not the good sort, where I close my eyes and imagine a big strong man who wants to have his wicked way with me, in spite of my insincere protests (note for men: don’t try doing this is real life unless you want a rape conviction). No, these are fantasies of turning to the stranger who grabs my bum in a crowd and punching his face until blood and bone fragments are trickling from his nose. Or driving my knee hard into a groper’s crotch and watching him double up in pain. Bashing the rape apologist’s face into his computer screen witnessing him trying to extract the glass shards from his eyes. I could go on, but I’m sure you’d rather I didn’t.
I’m not a violent person, generally. I once broke two of my ex-boyfriends toes after he hit me and then stood between me and the door, but I feel that was justified. I’m mostly quite peaceable. I’ve worked for peace-building organisations. So the violent images running through my mind are rather disconcerting.
I think I know where it started. Yesterday I was walking along Blackfriars Road, deeply involved in conversation with a friend. A passerby leaned in close and said “nice tits.”
I would love to believe that you are sitting behind your computer screen thinking “what a git!” but I’m a realist, so I will add this information: I had paid the man no attention, and, in fact, was hardly aware of him until I heard his voice. I was wearing an ankle-length skirt and a woolly jumper, no heels, no make-up and no revealing clothing. So whatever version of “asking for it” you can come up with, I’m pretty sure you’re wrong.
It would be lovely to live in a world where men didn’t think it was appropriate to comment on my breasts as I walk down the street, but I’m a realist and I don’t ask for too much. Wherever my personal comfort zone is, someone will always act outside it. Some people are socially inept and some people delight in provoking reactions, especially negative ones, and will do whatever necessary to get one. I know all this, but the comment got to me, all the same.
As these sorts of experiences accumulate, I feel like I’m under siege. Every woman has tales to tell. The comment on Blackfriars Road was so ordinary that the friend I was with didn’t even feel the need to comment on it. Since then, I’ve mentioned it to two women, and both of them had stories of harassment: a man sat next to my friend on a train wouldn’t stop rubbing his leg against hers; another friend has been followed home my numerous men.
Don’t get me wrong, I think flirting is great. I think spontaneous compliments are lovely and I very much enjoy the sensation of a hand stroking my bum (or smacking it, but that’s another story). I even like it when men come home with me. The thing is, I like to choose the men. In general, it’s best to wait for an invitation. If it’s true of calling in for a cup of tea, it is certainly true of grabbing my privates. You don’t need a high level of socialisation to work that out.
I’m tired of men saying “it could have been a misunderstanding” about everything from inappropriate comments to rapes. You don’t need to be highly skilled in non-verbal communication to interpret a woman edging away from you. You don’t have to get stuck in a quandary of “does she want it or not?” for the entire duration of the life of your vocal chords: you can simply ask. The most compelling evidence to show that miscommunication isn’t a relevant excuse, though, is the satisfied smirk on the face of the man on Blackfriar’s Road. I saw him gloat.
Men, I challenge you. Next time you witness, or hear of a woman being harassed, don’t offer possible excuses for the aggressor. There’s no need to be defensive, the woman isn’t using her harasser as a specimen to critique all men. Instead, try to put yourself in her place. There’s nothing a woman can do to defend herself. Even if I had the strength and speed to enact a violent revenge, I don’t really want to do it. I just want to be able to walk down the street unmolested. I have a woman’s body, so there’s nothing I can do to achieve that goal. No matter what I wear, how I act, the gits keep coming. Imagine living with that every day and then, perhaps, praise our restraint.
I don’t like pole dancing. I don’t like exotic dancing, and I certainly don’t like lap dancing. I recognise that there’s some gradation from artful spinning around a pole to grinding a man to orgasm with your naked buttocks, but I’m sorry, I don’t like it.
I’ve had to confront my dislike of it in the last two weeks. One of my characters got a job in a gentlemen’s club. I can’t actually go to one myself, because they require women to be accompanied by a man, and I don’t have any local male acquaintances I would be willing to ask. I could take pole dancing lessons, though. I haven’t so far, because I have been able to find an excuse every Wednesday.
Next month there’s a burlesque workshop on in Leeds. I’m so excited! It’s much further away, longer and more expensive than the pole dancing, but who cares? I could learn burlesque! I can see myself in heels and stockings, learning how to sensually slip elbow-length gloves from my fingers. I have a burning desire to be a burlesque dancer.
Surely if I find pole dancing repulsive, I should feel the same about burlesque. The purpose of both is to make entertainment for men out of the female body. They are, at core, commodifying and objectifying. I’ve always assumed that my objection to strip-clubs was a feminist one. Now, I’m not so sure.
Given that I love burlesque, could my objection to pole dancing be based in class? Pole dancing is trashy. Its fabric is nylon and its heels are Perspex. It is available in every town to everyone (male), the staple of sleazy middle-management men and stag parties. Burlesque, made of silk and satin, is an entirely different beast. Or do I resent the pressure that pole dancing puts on me, as it becomes more popular and its looks become more mainstream? No one wonders why I’m not dressed like a burlesque dancer (to the best of my knowledge) but high heels and thongs seem to be expected. Is my love of burlesque simply the effect of nostalgia on something equally terrible?
I’ve been going around in circles like this for weeks. Tonight, I identified my feeling about pole dancing. It’s the same feeling I get when I tell my father what I’m making for dinner, and he says “I’d rather have beans on toast.”
It’s sadness, rejection, disappointment, betrayal. I’m quite a good cook. I bake my own bread. My scones are light and my pastry crisp. My meringues are little white crumb-bombs, as they should be. Last week, I even made my own butter. So why does he reject my offering in favour of a tin of beans coated in sugar and salt, topping shop-bought bread?
I can recognise a diversity of tastes I don’t share. You may eat pheasant, or fancy blondes. Fine. The thing is, though, that women are great. They vary. They can be sexy, and funny, and acquire skills like martial arts or meringue making. The whole culture around pole dancing, lap dancing and stripping seems to conspire to make women less than they are. I’ve come across numerous dancers saying they dumb down to please the guys. It’s not just that they are reduced to a body, but that they dress up in cheap fabrics and trashy shoes to embody a fantasy, and that there’s nothing clever or subtle about that fantasy or it’s practice (although I bet it’s hard work). It’s the sexual equivalent of beans on toast.
So that’s why I don’t like pole dancing. I spent all this time learning to make meringues, and I’m disappointed there’s no one here to eat them. All the same, recognising that this is a journey, I’m going to give it a go. I’ll go to the pole dancing class, as well as the burlesque class, and I’ll let you know how it goes.
Oh, and if you know anyone in Yorkshire who’d like to take me to a strip club or a burlesque show this weekend, do let me know.
Are partner dances inherently sexist? This is a question I’ve been asking myself a couple of times a week since I started modern jive four months ago. The whole system seems to be predicated on male dominance. The men lead, choosing the moves and signalling to the ladies, who constantly read their partner, responding to his unspoken signals. The entire endeavour of a woman at modern jive is to do what their man tells them and look pretty while doing it. This doesn’t sound like an activity for a feminist.
The problem is that I enjoy it. I like the music, the exercise, the chance to meet people and, yes, there’s a part of me that likes the male attention, the chance to wear pretty dresses and twirl about the dance floor led by a firm, masculine hand. So I wonder, am I indulging my inner princess at the expense of the rest of myself?
It must be said that sex isn’t the last word on roles in modern jive. At every class I attend there are always one or two women taking the leader role. They are a tiny, tiny minority, though. Almost all women choose to follow. Only once have I seen a man take that role, for a couple of minutes to help out a friend who was having difficulty with a move. It seems that, as in most things, women may take on a man’s role, but men will not stoop to take on a woman’s.
In some sense, it seems that I can hardly complain about a role which I have freely chosen. I contest, however, that it is not an entirely free choice. Stepping outside others’ expectations is never easy, and even if people don’t make negative comments a certain amount of confusion would ensue. Learning to dance at all is enough of a challenge for me.
The division of roles creates a strong sense of gender, but the negative aspects are amplified by gender imbalance. There are usually more women than men at an event. More than once I have felt like a minor character in a Jane Austen novel as I took a seat and hoped that by the beginning of the next dance a man would pick me. Men are a scarce resource for which women compete. So, during those long minutes between dances, I sink into comparing myself with other women. Why did she get a dance and not me? Would I be chosen if wore a dress as tight as hers? If I danced closer? If I was skinnier, or wore sparklier shoes? If only I wasn’t so tall, the short men wouldn’t avoid me, and if I wasn’t so big, the men who like the dips and leans would be able to throw me about. Now and again the rivalry spills over into bitterness. When a woman said, last week, “there are too many women here, aren’t there?”, I had to bite my tongue not to retort “yes, that’s because you and your marauding band of middle aged divorcees walked in after the lesson!” I suffer dancer jealousy when I notice that a woman has repeatedly been picked by one of my favoured partners and a sense of smugness when I am the one chosen. It can’t do much for sisterhood!
Still, I’m not sure that I can blame the dance form for our communal psychosis. When so much of culture is telling women that they need to be skinnier, prettier, and more exuding of charm to ingratiate themselves with men, and that this is a worthy aim in life, it is hardly surprising that these thoughts perpetuate through dancing as well as dates, manicures and waits with the magazines at the dentist.
People don’t help, though. Teachers say “girls” when they mean “ladies”, so infantilise a room full of women, some of whom are well past retirement age. People make sexist jokes about men’s temporary power. Instructors assume that men need to be told not to stare at women’s breasts during moves which give them the opportunity and male partners often invade my personal space and furtively grope at available flesh.
Representations of modern jive hardly paint a picture which would dissuade the gropers. ‘Jive Magazine’ features a dancing couple (the image above) on the cover of its current issue. The sexualisation of the man’s outfit is restricted to a few undone buttons. The woman, on the other hand, is presented to the camera, clad in a sequinned bra and fishnet gloves, revealing a lot of cleavage, her stomach and two very toned legs. Don’t get me wrong, if I had a stomach as flat as that, I’d want to show it off, too. I do think it says something, though, that this image was chosen; it doesn’t exactly send out the message that woman’s role is not primarily a sexual one. It’s worse inside. Karen Sweeney offers advice on “How to be popular on the dancefloor”:
“Guys: I know we girlies sometimes tempt you with the occasional low neckline, but don’t forget where our faces are.”
I am in no way a girlie. I’m getting on for six foot tall in my dancing shoes and even with the addition of ribbons and bows there’s nothing sweet about me. Partners may also want to consider the possibility that I’m not wearing the low cut dress to tempt them personally. Statistically, it is unlikely that I’m dressing for you.
Sweeny goes on:
“Dancing is the vertical expression of horizontal desire. They say that a lady can tell by the way a guy dances how good he is in bed. Think about it…no pressure then!”
Dancing is sometimes an expression of desire, but then, washing up, performed provocatively enough, is too. Most of the people I dance with are decidedly unattractive to me. I’m sure that they would be as horrified as I am at the idea that our dances were indications of anything sexual, not least because often they are performed under the gazes of their wives and my father. That isn’t to say that dancing never leads me to think of sex. I haven’t slept with anyone since January; glancing through car windows in traffic jams makes me think of sex.
Where does all this leave us? Is modern jive, like the current craze for pole dancing, a way of making a sexual spectacle out of women’s bodies for the enjoyment of men? Not in my experience. The sexual element is present, as it is in all human interactions, but no more so. Some people use dance for sexual access; I’ve met men with wandering hands and women looking for a second husband (there may be women with wandering hands, too, they’ve just never felt me up, and men seeking wives who just haven’t proposed to me). It is also true, however, that a sizable number of people come looking for a lover and discover that they don’t want one after all, now that dancing fills the lonely evenings.
There are problems. Most of them are not inherent to the form of dance, but products of social ineptitude and opportunism. The gendered elements of jive are not set in stone. It isn’t a feminist dance, but it could be, if we chose to make it so. At a Salsa workshop with a great imbalance of men and women, the instructor did away with the language of ‘ladies’ and ‘men’ and gave us instead the options of ‘follower’ or ‘leader’. That will probably never be widespread, but choosing your own role, rather than allowing your gender to choose it for you, could be more common. It would be good to see same sex dancing partners more regularly, too. I’ll offer myself to help the cause.
In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy wearing swirly skirts twirling under the hands of authoritative men. Please don’t think too badly of me.